Grim autopsies and heavy metaphors in Taylor Sheridan's Wind River

Most of the dialogue would look good on a series of commemorative tea towels.

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As symbolic jobs go, the hero of Wind River has a corker. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a US wildlife officer who is first seen (or not seen, since he is dressed in white against the snowy Wyoming landscape) shooting a wolf that is stalking a flock of sheep. Cory is a protector of the innocent, a catcher in the ice. Just the man to assist an out-of-town FBI agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), with a homicide case involving an 18-year-old Native American woman found dead on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Cory is unusually troubled by the murder. What’s eating him? It isn’t long before we find out in some explanatory chunks of back story that break off from the rest of the script like ice floes. Only seconds after delivering the bad news to the dead woman’s father, Cory is giving him a pep talk about how he should open himself up to grief. Turns out that Cory has done his fair share of grieving. He even went to a seminar once: “I wanted answers to questions that couldn’t be answered.” His ex-wife learns that he is helping out with the investigation. “You can’t get the answers you’re looking for, no matter what you find,” she says. A Native American man spells it out: “The only Native thing about you,” he tells Cory, “is your ex-wife and a daughter you couldn’t protect.” Bingo!

The case is a bit Silence of the Lambs at first. Jane is obstructed by a patronising sheriff (played by Graham Greene, the chief from Dances With Wolves) and there’s a grisly autopsy scene. She also tracks a suspected killer through his apartment with her vision restricted, as Jodie Foster did in the earlier movie. But the writer-director Taylor Sheridan turns out to have more on his mind than just reheated Lambs. He wants to show how badly the indigenous people have been treated. He isn’t going to be deterred by the small matter of not having come up with anything for Native Americans to do in his film other than to play the victims.

Sheridan has enjoyed recent screenwriting success with Sicario, about Mexican drug cartels, and the credit-crunch western Hell or High Water, for which he was Oscar-nominated. Wind River is only his second outing as a director (or his first if you prefer, as he does, to pretend he didn’t make a disreputable 2011 horror movie called Vile) and his style is still rudimentary. He is that lethal combination of verbose writer and ponderous director. He equates violence with redemption in a way that leaves Wind River inferior to Sean Penn’s The Pledge, the film it most resembles, which challenged the connection between vengeance and closure. Sheridan floods every corner of the picture with music – desolate piano, dejected violins – and keeps having minor characters drop clues into casual conversation. In one scene, even the sheriff notices: “This thing’s solving itself!” he exclaims.

Most of the dialogue (“There’s a storm comin’… I wanted to fight the world…  This land: what it does to us”) would look good on a series of commemorative tea towels. It certainly doesn’t belong on the lips of an actor as gifted as Renner. Parts of his character have been written with a minimalist Steve McQueen type in mind. Cory slouches against an abandoned refrigerator in a snow-covered field and when he’s asked how well he knows the land, he replies: “Like it’s my job. Which it is.” But Renner’s strong suit is warmth, not cool. His doughy, puppy-dog face looks like it’s been scrunched up, thrown in the bin and then retrieved and flattened out again. He’s so sincere that he can wear dungarees over a hoodie without fear of ridicule.

If only Cory didn’t have such a one-track mind. “When you’re catching wolves, you don’t look for where they might be, you look for where they’ve been,” he says gravely during the hunt for the murderer. Musing on the subject of luck, he points out that “wolves don’t kill unlucky deer, they kill the weak ones.” Jane gazes back at him with a mixture of fondness and pity. Perhaps she’s wondering whether there is any chance of him coming up with a metaphor not related to his job. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move